Once again, my memory banks spill into my research as I recall my favorite haunt of childhood days, the Escolta. I thought I had just about exhausted what little I recall of that incredible street of old when I remembered one store that still stands out in my mind, the Estrella del Norte. The store I remember commanded an important corner at the foot of Jones Bridge in Plaza Moraga. As they say in retail, “Location is everything !” What I didn’t know back then was how long that store had been a part of Manila’s history and of course, that’s the story I will tell you here.
We need to go back to a trading company founded in 1870s by the Levy brothers – Adolphe, Charles and Raphael. The brothers were born in the Alsace-Lorraine region in France. Their mother, Luise Blum Levy, urged the boys to leave their home in Marckolsheim to avoid the onslaught of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Splitting up in Paris, Raphael sets up a buying office there as Adolph and Charles left for new opportunities in America. After failing in various businesses in New York and San Francisco, the brothers Levy decided to try their luck in the Spanish colony of the Philippines. They landed in Manila in 1873 after an arduous six-month journey from San Francisco. They brought five crates of religious medals, statues, gold chains, and gilt eyeglass frames they had been unable to sell in California.
They opened their first store in Iloilo City on Calle Real and became successful mostly due to the thriving local economy spurred on by the sale of sugar cane. They called it “La Estrella del Norte” (Star of the North). On the left is an 1894 listing in a commercial directory of the Philippines of La Estrella del Norte in Iloilo.
The Levy Hermanos were quite active in retail and particularly watchmaking and jewelry; establishing branches in Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, including their buying office in Paris.
Another store was added in Manila at #10 Escolta. The storefront faced one of the most exclusive shopping streets of its day. This photo shows the original Estrella del Norte with the hanging clock.
The photo above taken from the Bridge of Spain, shows the Pasig River looking eastward and on the north bank, the sign La Estrella del Norte above the double arched windows.
It is not documented but I surmise that by the early 1900s, La Estrella del Norte had moved and opened what later became their main office at #46 Escolta in Binondo. It was certainly a choice location. The Binondo district, could rival any urban metropolis district of its day; offering hotels, theaters, restaurants, luxury shops and business offices. Their Escolta store was frequented by the well-heeled for its beautiful selection of jewelry, watches, perfumes and other luxury items. A receipt from La Estrella del Norte dated 1908 clearly shows the new address. Click to enlarge. (courtesy of Vicky Lopez)
Escolta around the turn of the 20th century was coming into its own. The Binondo district was vibrant with European, Chinese, East Indian and American merchants. “The Bridge of Spain, that famous artery of commerce over which a stream of carabao carts, crowded tram cars, pleasure vehicles, and army wagons flows continuously, spans the Pasig River at the head of the Escolta in Binondo. Here the bazaars and European business houses are located, while the avenues that branch off lead to other populous and swearing districts. La Extrameña, a grocery and wine store, La Estrella del Norte diamond and jewelry store, the Sombreria hat store, advertised by a huge wooden hat hung out above the street; and a tobacco booth, are situated on the corners where the bridge and the Escolta meet.” [Source: The Great White Tribe in Filipiniana, Paul Gilbert, 1903]
Above, the Escolta around 1910. The Estrella del Norte store is on the right under the awning and clock. Note: the Oriental Bazar is located at #45 which should make the location across the street at #46 correct.
Around the mid-1880s, Adolphe took a well-deserved break from business concerns and went to Paris where he met Minette Irma from Strasbourg. They married in Paris in 1886 and had a daughter, possibly born in Manila. Alas, Adolphe is caught up in the cholera epidemic that swept the Philippines and succumbs on June 13, 1888 at the age of 38. He was buried in Manila
Adolphe was succeeded by one of his employees and possible relative, Charles Weill, whose brothers Abraham, managed the Iloilo store and Albert, managed the Hong Kong store.
Quite a gourmet, Charles Weill set up a dining room for his employees above the store that soon grew popular with the locals, calling it the “European French Jewish eating place.” One day, the acting archbishop of Manila, Eugenio Netter, was asked to join Weill for dinner. Archbishop Netter joined the diners in Sabbath prayers – in Hebrew – explaining to his astonished fellow diners that he had come from a poor Jewish family in Alsace and later converted to Catholicism but had never forgotten his heritage. It was a wonderful evening enjoyed by all. [Source: “Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror”, Frank Ephraim]
La Estrella del Norte began to diversify. As early as 1889, the company introduced the first bicycle, in 1894 the first phonograph, and in 1899 the first moving picture machine. In 1904, they even brought the first automobile ever seen by Philippine society.
The first car to ever travel on the streets of the Philippines was this 9-horsepower, 2-cylinder Richard Brasier roadster, brought into the country by La Estrella del Norte in 1904 which was bought by a certain Dr. Miciano –an affluent physician. It is currently on display at the Mind Museum in Taguig City. [source: Philippine History Blog via Isidra Reyes]
In 1909, Leopold Kahn, who was also from the Alsace region, joined the firm. He would eventually become the President & General Manager of La Estrella del Norte. Under his guidance, the firm became even more successful and was the largest jewelry store in the Philippines which included a new branch opened in Lipa, Batangas.
In his first year, Leopold Kahn established a separate automobile department under the name of Estrella Auto Palace at 536 Calle Gandara offering both sales and service. Leopold was a hands-on entrepreneur, always thinking of the next best thing. He had secured the rights to sell the Hupmobile in 1909 which became quite popular among the Americans living in Manila, although with more Filipinos acquiring jobs with the Insular government and proliferation of businesses in Manila, the popularity of having an automobile proved to be a boon for the dealership.
“Leopold Kahn, the general manager of the Levy Hermanos company, pioneer automobile dealers in the Philippines, and who have handled the Hupmobile since 1909, visited the Hup factory at Detroit recently,” says S. G. Chapman. Hupmobile agent on the Pacific coast. “There are more Hupmobiles in the Philippines than any other car manufactured in the world. Our islands boasts of 1,750 motorcars, of which number about 10 per cent drive Hupmobiles. The immense popularity is mostly due to the fact that it is a great hill climber; and the territory in the islands, especially in the provinces, abounds with hills and mountains, wherefore it is absolutely necessary that an owner have a car which can get over grades without difficulty. The visit of the world’s tourists and their memorable drive from Manila to Baguio, the first ever made by motor, did much to popularize the Hupmobile in the islands.”
Their agency included nearly a dozen cars, Hudson, Hupmobile, Peerless, Federal truck, Denby truck, Dodge, Jeffery, Scripps-Booth and Oakland plus a line of European cars consisting of Fiat, Panhard, Renault, Delahaye and Brasier.
Leopold Kahn married a woman from Surigao, Agripina Villarosa, who bore him five children. When she died, he married her sister, Anacoreta, who bore him eight children. Two of his children, Ernest and Raul, became successful businessmen too.
Kahn was also quite active in the Jewish community and used the office at La Estrella del Norte during the High Holiday services until the first synagogue was built in 1919, mostly due to his efforts and other distinguished businessmen such as Emil Bachrach.
Leopold was a part of Manila’s business elite. He was President and General Manager of La Estrella del Norte, Levy Hermanos, Inc.; General Manager, Estrella Auto Palace; Director, Metropolitan Theater, Inc., Bank of the Philippine Islands, Philippine Trust Co. President, Chambre de Commerce Francaise Aux Iles Philippines and decorated by Governor Pasquier of French Indo-China as the most notable Frenchman in the Philippine Islands. He died in 1938 [source: Isidra Reyes, Manila Nostalgia]
In the 1920s, La Estrella del Norte incorporated under the name of Levy Hermanos, Inc. formed to include a conglomeration of companies; the Estrella Auto Palace, a pharmaceutical company through its Estraco subsidiary, and Levy & Blum (later called Oceanic Commercial). This appeared in the New York Jeweler’s Circular on February 4, 1920. “The firm of Levy Hermanos, Paris France, has established an office in this city [New York] at 88 Gold St. for the purpose of buying jewelry, clocks, cut glass, art pottery, metal and silverware.”
Levy & Blum’s company headquarters was located on 345 Echague. It served as the import office for the Estrella del Norte retail operations. It also offered regularly issued catalogs featuring items of interest to Filipinos. This 1930s catalog features an assemblage of imported sacred statues, of different sizes, materials and prices to appeal to a diverse market.After the war, it was renamed Oceanic Commercial Inc. opening a retail jewelry and drug store on the Escolta.
The caption in the photo below reads, “Farewell party given by the staff employees of Oceanic Commercial Inc. in honor of their President and General Manager, Mr. John G. Brimo and his wife.” No date given but I would guess this was taken in the Sixties.
The Paris office continued to supply La Estrella del Norte with the finest in French jewelry, silverplate and perfumes. The Estraco’s wholesale department offered a complete line of pharmaceutical products from France, covering the lines of Pharacologie Generale, Laboratorie LeBrun, and the Laboratorie Theraplix.
After the Battle of Manila, the city lay in ruins. Escolta was a pile of rubble. So many beautiful buildings were destroyed including the Crystal Arcade and across the street was the Estrella del Norte at #46, now completely demolished.
As reconstruction began, plans were made to build a new art deco-styled Estrella del Norte building. A site at the foot of the Jones Bridge in Plaza Moraga, formerly occupied by the Nipon Bazar before the war, was chosen.
It stood next door to Kairuz, another one of my favorite department stores. I remember how excited I was to look at the boy’s bicycles at Christmas, hoping that somehow my parents would get the hint.
La Estrella del Norte also spawned another famous jewelry store. Rafael Soriano Rebullida worked for Estrella del Norte before the war and opened Rebullida after the war under the name of Star Jewelry. “When my father, Rafael Jr. and uncle, Carlos joined him, the name Rebullida Inc. came about.” [Source: Eileen Rebullida Delgallego]
On a personal note, my great-uncle Dr. Eduardo Zaragoza was the medical director at La Estrella del Norte in the 1950-1960s. He passed away before I had a chance to know him.
La Estrella del Norte – the Star of the North’s light started to dim in the Sixties as both businesses and homes migrated towards the newer and glamorous Makati suburbs. By 1961, the Savory Restaurant relocated from #20 Escolta which was just across the street, to the building of Estrella del Norte. The Crystal Arcade, Botica Boie, Heacock’s, Alonzo, Estrella del Norte, Dencia’s Pansit Malabon, Berg’s, the Capitol and Lyric Theaters, Max’s Fried Chicken, Henry’s Donuts and other well-known establishments are now all gone. Although I understand there is a small Estrella del Norte store in Legaspi Village, Makati, but the Savory Restaurant is still around.
And so, the holidays are almost upon us. I’m currently researching my next article which should come out around the first of December. I hope you found this blog interesting. If you haven’t seen my previous posts, check my blog on the right hand side for past blogs. As always, I welcome your comments or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org – I’d love to hear from you !